Built to last

By - Dec 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Jon M. Gilbertson

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Any reasonably intelligent rock fan who lived through the 1990s can take a few seconds and remember an indie band that emerged from the underground and seemed this close to mainstream success.

Pavement. Chavez. Sleater-Kinney. The Afghan Whigs. Guided By Voices.

Not since the heyday of punk rock in the 1970s did so much promise turn into so much history. All of the above bands – and several more besides – dissolved, leaving behind a small shelf of work, a wall of interesting concert posters and a handful of memories.

In this context, the continued existence of Built to Spill, more than a decade after their formation, is a minor-key miracle. From the listener’s perspective, it has been half a decade between Ancient Melodies of the Future and You In Reverse; from frontman Doug Martsch’s perspective, it’s also been half a decade, but not a silent time.

“We toured for about a year, and then I took about a year off and I did some other musical things,” Martsch explains, obliquely referring to his 2002 solo album, Now You Know, and other projects. “Then we got back together and started touring and writing songs for a couple years, and then spent about a year making the record, and another year waiting for the record to come out. So there was really only a short break in there.”

So if You In Reverse gives the impression of a creative revitalization brought about by an extended rest period, the premise is a false one. But the revitalization is there nevertheless. Even on the first track “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” which opens with a long passage of guitars running through a spectrum of interactions, Built to Spill sounds urgent yet relaxed. Martsch attributes this interesting quality to what he reluctantly calls “jam sessions.”

“When I say ‘jam,’ I mean improvise with the attempt to make up parts,” he says. “We did the most jamming that we’d ever done to make the record. We’re not all just noodling around, but of course a little of that happens; we’re consciously trying to come up with patterns and chords that fit together. We’re trying to write songs as a band.”

The rotating membership of Built to Spill has, in the past, made such open collaboration somewhat difficult, even though the ever-changing roster has usually involved one friend leaving and another returning.

Even so, over time a kind of solidification has occurred. Besides the familiar rhythm section of bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf, the lineup currently includes guitarist Jim Roth, previously an accompanist on tour, and Brett Netson, an intermittent member who rejoined Built to Spill just in time to play on a few tracks and throw down a fantastic guitar solo on “Just a Habit.”

“Netson is my favorite musician and I happen to know him, so I recruit him whenever I need someone,” Martsch says. “Caustic Resin, his band, wasn’t really doing anything, so I called him in again. I think everyone feels it’s their band right now. We all feel like we belong in it, and I don’t think anyone really questions that at all.”

When it came time for this lineup to record You In Reverse, there were still other questions to be resolved, chief among them the best way to make it.

“The intent was just to go in there without an actual producer,” Martsch says. “If you’re making music, you know what your music’s going to be like. You should know that. It’s hard to imagine paying someone tons of money to tell you what to do, or to imagine that someone else has great ideas that me and other guys in the band can’t come up with.”

But no band is an island. Built to Spill chose the Audible Alchemy studio in Portland, Oregon, where they encountered studio owner Steve Lobdell and engineer Jacob Hall.

“Steve kind of took on the role of producer,” Martsch says. “He became another voice in the band, contributing to the way it sounded. He had a lot of really great ideas. Jake is more the scientist of the pair of them, more technically-attuned. He’d listen to our work on three or four stereos. Steve was more aesthetic.”

Behind or underneath open-ended experimentation alternating with tightly wrapped pop songs like “Liar,” Hall and Lobdell have helped create a setting of classic simplicity. Timeless is perhaps not the word, but there is certainly no attempt to make You In Reverse sound either state-of-the-art modern or scratched-vinyl retro.

The album holds up against 1996’s Perfect From Now On and 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret, and possibly betters either. It also caps a career, or at least a long period of existence, in which Built to Spill have never let their pop smarts shackle their experimental ambitions or vice versa. They’ve even managed to maintain this balance while residing on a major label (Warner Bros.), although Martsch can’t really say why that is.

“I have no idea what anyone over there thinks,” he says. “We sell enough records for them to make money off us, and I guess the president guy likes us, and we like the guys there. They’ve picked up the last couple options without any reservations at all. They leave us alone and let us do what we want, and we are pretty easy for them to deal with; we don’t make any demands.”

In the larger world, Built to Spill seem to continue on the strength of a hardcore fan base and their own ability to stay un-buffeted by the winds of trend. They could go the way of their former alt-rock peers, but Martsch seems supremely unconcerned by what happens next.

“I don’t know whose thoughts matter,” he says. “I don’t lose any sleep over it.” VS

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